Scientists created this detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe. The image reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations—shown as color differences—that correspond to the seeds that grew to become the galaxies. (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

Ultracold experiment simulates big bang ‘echo’

It turns out that under certain conditions a cloud of atoms chilled to almost absolute zero in a vacuum chamber displays phenomena similar to those that unfolded following the big bang.

That’s according to Chen-Lung Hung, who is lead author of a new study in the journal Science detailing the experiment.

“This is the first time an experiment like this has simulated the evolution of structure in the early universe,” says Cheng Chin, a physics professor the University of Chicago.

The image at left shows the density of atoms at the beginning of an experiment simulating the evolution of the universe following the big bang. Eighty milliseconds after the simulated big bang, the atoms have become much less concentrated in the experimental vacuum chamber, as indicated (at right) by the color gradation from red to yellow, green, blue, and purple in the density map. (Credit: Chen-Lung Hung)
The image at left shows the density of atoms at the beginning of an experiment simulating the evolution of the universe following the big bang. Eighty milliseconds after the simulated big bang, the atoms have become much less concentrated in the experimental vacuum chamber, as indicated (at right) by the color gradation from red to yellow, green, blue, and purple in the density map. (Credit: Chen-Lung Hung)

Chin pursued the project with Hung, who was a PhD student at Chicago and is now at the California Institute of Technology, and Victor Gurarie of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Their goal was to harness ultracold atoms for simulations of the big bang to better understand how structure evolved in the infant universe.

The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is the echo of the big bang. Extensive measurements of the CMB have come from the orbiting Cosmic Background Explorer in the 1990s, and later by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and various ground-based observatories, including the South Pole Telescope collaboration led by the University of Chicago.

These tools have provided cosmologists with a snapshot of how the universe appeared approximately 380,000 years following the Big Bang, which marked the beginning of the universe.

“At this ultracold temperature, atoms get excited collectively. They act as if they are sound waves in air,” Hung says.

Big bang’s rippling echo

The dense package of matter and radiation that existed in the very early universe generated similar sound-wave excitations.

The synchronized generation of sound waves correlates with cosmologists’ speculations about inflation in the early universe.

“Inflation set out the initial conditions for the early universe to create similar sound waves in the cosmic fluid formed by matter and radiation,” Hung says.

The sudden expansion of the universe during its inflationary period created ripples in space-time in the echo of the big bang. One can think of the big bang, in oversimplified terms, as an explosion that generated sound, Chin says.

The sound waves began interfering with each other, creating complicated patterns.

“That’s the origin of complexity we see in the universe,” he adds.

Baby universe

These excitations are called Sakharov acoustic oscillations, named for Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov, who described the phenomenon in the 1960s. To produce Sakharov oscillations, Chin’s team chilled a flat, smooth cloud of 10,000 or so cesium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit), creating an exotic state of matter known as a two-dimensional atomic superfluid.

Physicists conducted experiments with ultracold atoms in this experimental apparatus to see if they could reproduce the same kind of evolution that cosmologists have observed in the early universe. (Credit: Jason Smith)
Physicists conducted experiments with ultracold atoms in this experimental apparatus to see if they could reproduce the same kind of evolution that cosmologists have observed in the early universe. (Credit: Jason Smith)

Then they initiated a quenching process that controlled the strength of the interaction between the atoms of the cloud. They found that by suddenly making the interactions weaker or stronger, they could generate Sakharov oscillations.

The universe simulated in Chin’s laboratory measured no more than 70 microns in diameter, approximately the same diameter as a human hair.

“It turns out the same kind of physics can happen on vastly different length scales,” Chin explains. “That’s the power of physics.”

The goal is to better understand the cosmic evolution of a baby universe, the one that existed shortly after the big bang. It was much smaller then than it is today, having reached a diameter of only a hundred thousand light years by the time it had left the CMB pattern that cosmologists observe on the sky today.

In the end, what matters is not the absolute size of the simulated or the real universes, but their size ratios to the characteristic length scales governing the physics of Sakharov oscillations. “Here, of course, we are pushing this analogy to the extreme,” Chin says.

380,000 years vs. 10 milliseconds

“It took the whole universe about 380,000 years to evolve into the CMB spectrum we’re looking at now,” Chin notes. But the physicists were able to reproduce much the same pattern in approximately 10 milliseconds in their experiment. “That suggests why the simulation based on cold atoms can be a powerful tool,” Chin adds.

The research team varied the conditions that prevailed early in the history of the expansion of their simulated universes by quickly changing how strongly their ultracold atoms interacted, generating ripples. “These ripples then propagate and create many fluctuations,” Hung says. He and his co-authors then examined the ringing of those fluctuations.

Today’s CMB maps show a snapshot of how the universe appeared at a moment in time long ago. “From CMB, we don’t really see what happened before that moment, nor do we see what happened after that,” Chin says.

But, Hung notes, “In our simulation we can actually monitor the entire evolution of the Sakharov oscillations.”

Chin and Hung are interested in continuing this experimental direction with ultracold atoms, branching into a variety of other types of physics, including the simulation of galaxy formation or even the dynamics of black holes.

“We can potentially use atoms to simulate and better understand many interesting phenomena in nature,” Chin says. “Atoms to us can be anything you want them to be.”

The National Science Foundation, Army Research Office, and the Packard Foundation funded the work.

Source: University of Chicago

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